It didn’t actually transform, but that was the only disappointing thing about the Prada Transformer, a tent installed by the eponymous fashion company on the grounds of Seoul, South Korea’s Gyeonghui Palace. The temporary space, 60 feet high and covered with a special polycarbonate laminate, is scheduled to “transform” every few weeks, or so its designers, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) promise, morphing from a space for special events to a rectangular cinema, a cross-shaped art exhibition space, and a circular room for “domestically scaled” catwalk shows.
The transformation will occur with the help of what OMA project architect Alexander Reichert called “a ballet of cranes” to lift the 160-ton object up and rotate it mid-air before setting it on what had previously been one of its walls. The Transformer’s steel frame will click into place on a series of concrete supports, the vents near the tent’s tops will become openings for air conditioning ducts, and zippers that once hung overhead will allow entry. Then the whole thing will repeat itself again until, presumably, the novelty wears off, the fabric tears, or the object is shipped to some other site where Prada remains popular.
The space for art calls to mind the socially and physically radical crosses, squares, and circles Malevich produced after the Russian Revolution. The cinema is an anonymous box that disappears in favor of the screen. The hexagonal event space is neutral and non-judgmental. Finally, the catwalk odeon implies supreme concentration on what is the starting point for all of this, the body dressed in high fashion—a kind of temple.
In any condition, the Transformer’s distended and distorted shape, always moving from one geometry to another, makes it fit into the tradition of modern art object as an unformed, or continually reforming, shape that defies attempts to catch it within historical strictures of good taste. From the outside, it recalled teepees and circus tents, but also the thrusting and splayed forms Naum Gabo pioneered, and the blob-based shapes that have recently invaded the world of architecture.
On the inside, it was fragments of the steel armature’s insistent geometry, combined with the translucent cloth stretched to breaking point, that drew the eye ever around an endless space. The combination of fluid form and heavy metal, of rough plywood floors and soaring space suffused with filtered light, created a continual tension between definite materiality and abstraction.
This is event architecture: a structure whose function is less important than its ability to re-stage, in form and in content, certain aspects of our visual culture. As a temporary object, it is probably the purest example of such. It is too bad that the participants couldn’t collectively roll the object around to change it into whatever they wanted. Instead, you had to buy into the Prada Transformer—literally, by buying a ticket, but also by subjecting yourself to the design team’s notion of what an event was and what your place should be in something they staged for you.